Thailand Day 7: Umpiem, Nupo… Houston We Have a Problem.

The usual early start heading south to Umpiem Mai refugee camp but we only just make the line car as it’s packed up and ready to go half an hour early! The day ahead is going to be hectic – there are more than 30 former political prisoners in Umpiem Mai refugee camp and most of them will be photographed today. Getting into the camps is often a game of cat and mouse with the authorities. Either a few hundred baht changes hands and a look the other way as you sneak in the gate or if you’re lucky you may be able to sneak in without having to pay some tea money. Either way the bottom line is you’re not supposed to be going in – the Thai authorities don’t want photos, videos and reports coming out of what like is life inside these camps. The usual way is to be a ‘Teacher’ or ‘Missionary’ for the day. But today I am concerned about getting in as we have company with us which on a normal day I would be more than happy to have but today is about the issues we are trying to cover for former political prisoners and we can’t afford getting caught or not getting in to the camp.

The route south is nothing but the usual – checkpoints where those without papers are hauled aside and have to part with whatever cash they have to be able to continue their journey. It’s just another part of the perilous life of a stateless person on the Thai-Burma border being exposed to corruption at every turn. About 30 minutes from Umpiem Mai cmap we are pulled over at the top of a hill by the Thai police – it’s a random checkpoint and there about 30 police in total – many armed, ready and waiting to fill their pockets with a little extra cash for the weekend – they are in for a nice surprise when they stop us as we had just picked up 19 Karen refugees on their way to a day’s farming… a handsome reward for the Thai police even if they had to do their best to extort money away from the eyes and ears of the foreigners amongst us on the line car – we filmed what we could and you can just make out the Karen woman ‘talking’ to the police in the clip above.

We finally make it to Umpiem Mai and meet Kyaw Soe Win at the gate as planned, but this is where the plans go wrong (as I had expected form the start). There is no way we are going to be allowed in today as we are too many people. If it had just been Thiha, me and Jackie then no problem – we could sneak in as normal, but with the extra (white western) faces accompanying us its obviously a no go. No time to be disappointed as when one door shuts another opens and we change around our entire schedule and decide to head straight to Nupo and come back here on Sunday… when the Palat is away!… (just us 3) providing we can catch the last line car form Umphang and also get a message to the camp that we are on our way (they aren’t expecting us until tomorrow). There is no phone reception in Nupo camp but with the wonders of modern technology I send a Facebook message via my iPhone to John Glenn in Houston, Texas, who then in turn gets a message to our contacts in Nupo Camp informing them of our imminent arrival… Houston we have a problem!! Digital democracy at it’s very best!! We catch the next line car down to Umphang and just make the last connection to Nupo camp by the skin of our teeth. It’s becoming a bit of a habit just making these connections wherever we are in the world… it’s as though it’s just meant to happen.

The road to Nupo has been vastly improved since my last visit just 6 months ago and we arrive much quicker than expected giving us time to take several portraits in the early evening before the light disappears – the call ahead had already been made by John Glenn from in Houston to prepare whoever was available – great teamwork! So here we are back at ESC Nupo (English Speaking Course) and a warm welcome as always – it’s great to see Robin, Min Zaw Oo, Ton and everyone again and a real honour to be able to stay in the camp at the school. This part of the trip wouldn’t be possible without the help from all at ESC so a huge thanks to you all. Nupo camp is home to approximately 25+ former political prisoners, mostly living in Section 16 and most of whom I photographed on my last visit back in July. But the light was not so good back then and the portraits were all rushed and also with many of the same backgrounds. Also most importantly, with the Leica back in my hands these portraits will simply rock. So without any delay we decide to get the shoots underway as tomorrow we will only have the morning to work with as it gets too bright after about 11am and we have to head back to Umphang and then on to Umpiem Mai on Sunday.

This time our trip to the camps is taking on an extra dimension as we are also documenting the current perilous situation for former political prisoners on the Thai-Burma border where they are basically stateless people as they are not being recognised as refugees by the UNHCR or Thai authorities. You can read more about this issue on a seperate blog entry here. The first person who we not only take a portrait of but spend some time interviewing is U Chit Tin, a former member of parliament for the NLD. Jailed for high treason in 1990 when he was one of 35 NLD MPs who met in Mandalay to form an alternative government, U Chit Tin is now awaiting resettlement like so many here in the refugee camps. (You can read about his story here). U Chit Tin spent 2 years in Insein prison and amongst other things in his life as an NLD MP he was in the lead car in front of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi when they were attacked at Depayin. Imagine an MP from your Government going through that as well as torture and oppression for 16 years and now being forced to live in a refugee camp… A complete and utter farce is the only polite way to describe this mess.

With the light fading we manage to take 5 more portraits this evening which makes all the hassle and misfortunes of earlier pale into insignificance. We photograph Naing Linn (2 years in Pathein prison); Moe Kyaw Aung (7 years in Insein & Tharwaddy prisons); Than Oo Myint (1 year in Moulmein prison); Moe Kyi (3 years in Insein, Bago & Tharawaddy prisons) and finally Soe Myint Aung (3 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons).

Please click HERE for full size images of the above portraits

As the evening drew to a close we headed back to ESC for some dinner and a good catch up with everyone. It may sound strange to say it but it’s great to be here and I only hope that next time I come back we can have made huge in-roads on not only the political prisoner issue inside Burma but also that of those in peril as stateless people living in these camps.

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